Timon Balloo stepped into the kitchen of a 300-seat restaurant every day with a looming identity crisis.
“What is home cooking to me?,” he started asking himself. He had made Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill a hit in the heart of Midtown Miami for 10 years, a James Beard-nominated restaurant for which the New York Times named him one of the 16 black chefs changing America. But the food he was cooking didn’t reflect his soul.
He thinks he found the answer to his question down a long hidden hallway in downtown Miami, in his new 21-seat restaurant (25 when the fire marshal isn’t looking) with seven tables.
There his wife of 16 years, Marissa, stands at a rustic red hostess stand inside the Ingraham Building, beneath a blue neon sign that reads, simply, Balloo.
In a lyric little Bento box of a restaurant behind her, Timon Balloo is cooking the cuisine of his mixed heritage — and, in every dish, trying to find answers about his own roots.
“In order to be genuine, to cook authentically, you have to be honest about your story,” he said.
The rich scent of curried roasted goat melds with the roti flatbread he is baking on the flattop, like his late Trinidadian-Indian father used to make during Balloo’s summer visits to New York.
Fish sauce splashes over a dim sum dish of rolled Chinese chung fun crepe noodles with rehydrated shrimp and scallions, the pungent flavors reminiscent of the lap cheong sausage and rice and brown stew chicken his Afro-Caribbean Chinese mother made when she wasn’t working long hours in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
“If you come to our house, this is how we cook,” Balloo says as he sprinkles peanuts over a charred cabbage with blissful chunks of pork marinated in a mix of Asian, Caribbean and Indian spices.
These are the flavors he remembers.
And this new, literal mom-and-pop restaurant, where his 11- and 3-year-old daughters bounce between tables during the weekend, is where Balloo is creating the loving family table he craved as a boy caught between cultures in a fractured household.
“It’s about accepting who I am,” he said. “That took a long time to get to.”
This is the home he’s created.
There, a picture of himself as a boy (Wing Wah, his mother’s nickname for him, Cantonese for success and prosperity) anchors a mustard-yellow wall ready to be filled with family pictures. They’ll join black-and-white photos of his wife and daughter and her Thai-Colombian family, who helped steer Balloo when he was a rudderless teenager.
Another parsley green wall catalogues his childhood icons from Run DMC and Tupac to MacGyver, David Hasselhoff with “Knight Rider’s” KITT and his forever-crush, Alyssa Milano.
The place exudes the essence of family so much that when his friend, the celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez, visited on its third day open, he was struck nearly to tears. He recalled his own mother, the award-winning chef and cookbook author Zarela Martinez, asking her son to take her back to eat Balloo’s moqueca mixta Brazilian stew at SushiSamba, where Balloo was the chef in New York.
“He’s going back to his roots,” Sanchez said after a heaping plate of Balloo’s Trini-spiced oxtail with pigeon peas. “This says a lot about his own maturity, to leave a big restaurant and come back to his roots… We can’t lose our soul, who we are. And that’s why this is so special.”
‘I didn’t know who I was’
Balloo, 42, has never been to Trinidad, where his parents met before moving to New York City, where he was born — and then quickly separating.
His mother moved with her son to the Bay Area, where Balloo said they lived in 15 homes in 15 years, bouncing around San Francisco’s outskirts.
Working as everything from a secretary to a cashier at Lucky Markets, his mother often cooked big meals on the weekend that would last part of the week. Those were usually the oxtail stew and the brown stew chicken she learned to cook despite being raised in an orphanage in Trinidad. During the week before leaving to work, she flipped on the rice cooker with chunks of Chinese sausage or duck liver, which rendered the savory fattiness into the meal.
That left Balloo at home alone most days, watching “Galloping Gourmet” alone on Saturday mornings instead of cartoons, in a neighborhood where he was often confused for Polynesian. He struggled to find his place. He got into fights at school, started a light-weight gang with his friends (“Someone was always trying to size you up, jack you up, make you for a mark,” he said) and drinking his mother’s white rum and refilling it with water. (“I wanted to cry and that’s the thing that would let me cry.”)
“I didn’t know who I was,” he said. “I wasn’t Asian enough to be Asian. I wasn’t brown enough to be brown.”
Fed up with her son, his mother sent him to live with his father — a man he had never met — in New York. He was 10. (“I felt rejected,” he said.)
When he wasn’t at his father’s tiny flat near 96th street on the Upper West Side, Balloo waited for hours outside off-track horse betting sites, where his father spent his days when he wasn’t working as hired muscle.
During their quiet, awkward times at home, his father introduced him to Trinidadian-Indian flavors. His father made roti, a flatbread with yellow lentils, from scratch, Indian curries of all varieties, masalas with different kinds of meat and pickled his own vegetables. Only years later would Balloo realize the food memories he had created.
Feeling out of place, at the end of his second summer visiting, “I said, ‘I never want to go back to New York,’” he remembered.
Finding ‘my gang’
His mother married a Jamaican man, who was the first positive male influence in Balloo’s life, and moved to Lauderhill when her son was 15. Nearer to the islands where his family was from, Balloo met a whole new culture — and flavors. His friends at Piper High were Haitian, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican — and the girl he met working the counter at a Wet Seal was Colombian with a Thai father, who was a chef back in Los Angeles.
It was that girl, who would become his wife after seven years of dating, who brought Balloo an application for Uncle Al’s in Davie. And there, slinging fried food in fast-moving chaos, within a chain of command among lost souls, Balloo found what the late Anthony Bourdain so aptly dubbed the “pirate ship.”
“I was kissed,” he said. “That was my gang.”
He started at Johnson & Wales culinary school in North Miami. And when his mother told him it was time to move out at 18, he moved in with Marissa’s grandmother. She washed his chef’s uniforms and made him Colombian sancocho.
For his 18th birthday, Marissa invited all of her family to her abuela’s house to celebrate. Balloo had never had a birthday party before. (“He was sweating from every pore in his body,” Marissa recalled.)
“All of the soul and love [at the new restaurant] is because of what they taught me: unconditional love,” Balloo said.
Everything Balloo would learn in the following years, working in the kitchens of South Florida tastemakers — Michelle Bernstein, Mango Gang chefs Allen Susser and Robbin Haas, José Mendín, a fellow JW grad — forced Balloo to think about the kind of food he wanted to make.
‘Embracing my culture’
At Sugarcane, where he remains a partner, that meant flavorful pan-Asian small plates that catered to large crowds, a concept that could be repeated in Brooklyn and Las Vegas.
But the restaurant was stealing crucial parts of his happiness, too.
He was traveling so often, his youngest daughter, 3, wasn’t bonding with him. She would squirm when he wanted to hold her. “That was hard for him,” said Marissa.
He took a six-month sabbatical to spend time with his daughters. In the weeks after, his 3-year-old would peek into his room to make sure he was asleep in his bed. He played video games with his 11-year old. And when she became self-conscious about her curly hair, he let his own curls grow out and cut them into a high fade to show her black hair is beautiful.
“That was a step closer to my embracing my culture,” he said.
During that sabbatical, he traveled: Thailand, Japan, Malaysia. All the while, he picked up flavors he wanted to incorporate in the new restaurant. (To come: Malaysian fish-head curry, a Singaporean chili crab made with Florida blue crab.)
All of it, flavor and family, went into Balloo’s menu when it opened last week.
The dishes are ones he first cooked for his children at home. He’s recalling the scents of his mother’s solitary kitchen. He’s fermenting mango, garlic and peppers, like the ones his father used to make before he passed away last year (before the two truly reconciled).
When a young line cook plates a dish on a recent Friday night, Balloo tells him, “make sure you taste it before you put it on the plate. I want you to make a food memory.” And when a diner is served a plate of bright orange roasted curry calabaza, Balloo himself is eager to encourage him to smash the pumpkin into the cool, tart labneh yogurt and fried curry leaves and spices as if he himself is eager for a bite.
Balloo is finding his way, with flavors and memories, exploring his food and culture at a place as intimate as a home-cooked meal.
“I’m trying to find the evolution of who I am,” he said. “I’m not trying to cook ‘authentic’ food. I’m trying to represent me and what I yearn for — for the soul.”
Balloo: Modern Home Cooking
Address: 19 SE 2nd Ave., Suite #4, inside the Ingraham Building, downtown Miami
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.